Whitney Houston’s death was first announced on Twitter. Mainstream media followed quickly, and soon, the whole world knew that the troubled life of the famous pop star had ended.
My only hope is that her daughter didn’t find out on Facebook.
With so many of us are carrying around our cell phones, instantly connected to every conceivable form of social media, news like this no longer waits for the sheriff’s knock on the door.
You don’t have to be particularly Zen to realize that we are, in fact, all connected.
So when someone dies, who gets to say so? In the case of some wildly famous person, the basic rule seems to be: whoever finds out first.
But applying this rule to the rest of us doesn’t work at all. And spreading news that isn’t ours to spread is a lousy way to give someone already-lousy news.
Posting “RIP John Doe” on your Facebook site might mean that daughter Jane Doe finds out her dad has been killed before someone gets a chance to call her, or sit with her and tell her the news.
When someone you know dies, just because you know it, doesn’t mean you need to tell it. This has become a real and troubling problem. Sheriff’s offices, charged with the difficult task of notifying families that a loved one has been killed, are struggling to get to the family before the inevitable texts, Tweets, and postings share the news first. Sometimes, the sheriff’s visit is superfluous.
Sure, the way that you hear that a loved one has been killed isn’t the most important thing here. If someone has been killed unexpectedly, there’s no good way to hear that news. Still, which would you rather have: a real live human being coming to your door with a measure of compassion and grace, or a (well intentioned) post: “O.M.G. Mr. Lawler, my ninth-grade teacher, was killed in a car crash tonight. SO SAD.”
Perhaps there is some human instinct that demands that we tell what we know, especially when it comes to important life events like death. Facebook and Twitter have trained us all to spout just about whatever comes to mind. But when someone dies, there’s a simple rule to follow so you don’t get in the way of the sometimes chaotic and emotional process those closest to the deceased are going through.
Ask yourself this simple question: Am I family or close enough to be like family? If you’re not, it’s not your job to post the news. If you’re close enough to the family, ask if everyone close has been notified and if it’s okay to post. Then tell people that you got the family’s okay in your post. We need some sort of “all clear” in these circumstances.
If you’re not close…just wait. The dead person will still be dead tomorrow.
When do you get to post that picture you love of your teacher? Or the poem and the well-wishes to the family? It’s tricky. The family isn’t likely thinking about social media. Hopefully, whoever is working with the family will ask them to consider this avenue, because it is such a powerful and fast-moving medium. But if you haven’t seen anything on the family’s accounts or pages, waiting a day is safe. After 24 hours, chances are that all the people closest to the deceased have the news.
Death is often a surprise, even, strangely, when it’s expected. Telling people someone has died is an important task. Those closest to the dead ought to be given a chance to do it their way.
So we wait.
If we’re not immediate family or close friends, it certainly isn’t going to hurt us. But if we don’t wait, we risk intrusion on someone else’s delicate process.